Skip to main content

Philip Seymour Hoffman: When In 'Doubt'

Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in the film Doubt, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play. His character, a priest, provokes suspicion for his attention to a young student.


Other segments from the episode on December 10, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 10, 2008: Interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman; Interview with James Reston Jr.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Philip Seymour Hoffman: When in 'Doubt'


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, is starring with Meryl Streep in the new movie "Doubt." Hoffman won an Oscar in 2006 for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie "Capote." He's also given memorable performances in such films as "Charlie Wilson's War," "The Savages," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," Happiness" and "Boogie Nights."

"Doubt" was adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley from his Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name. It takes place in 1964 in a Catholic school in the Bronx. Meryl Streep plays the strict and old-fashioned principal. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a priest and gym teacher who wants a more open atmosphere in the school. The principal distrusts him and urges a new young teacher, played by Amy Adams, to keep an eye on him. The young teacher notices some suspicious behavior involving the priest's relationship with the 12-year-old boy named Donald Miller, who was the only African-American student in the school. In this scene, the principal and the young teacher have called the priest in for a meeting about the Christmas pageant, but the principal and the young teacher have other things on their minds.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The Christmas pageant.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Ms. AMY ADAMS: (As Sister James) And we must be careful how Donald Miller is used. I...

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Easy there, sister.

(Soundbite of utensils clinking)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) All right. What about Donald Miller?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) We must be careful in the pageant that we neither hide Donald Miller nor put him forward.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Because of the color of his skin?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) That's right, yeah.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Why?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Come, father.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think he should be treated like every other boy.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Well, you yourself singled the boy out for special attention. You held a private meeting with him at the rectory a week ago?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) What are we talking about?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Donald Miller?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The boy acted strangely when he returned to class.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) He did?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) When he returned from the rectory, a little odd, yes.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Can you tell us why?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) How did he act strangely?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) He - I'm not sure how to explain it - he laid his head on the desk in some...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Do you mean you had some impression?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) And he'd come from the rectory, so you're asking me.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Mm.

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) That's it.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Hm.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Mm hmm.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Hm.

(Soundbite of throat clearing)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Did you want to discuss the pageant? Is that why I'm here? Or is this what you wanted to discuss?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) This.

GROSS: Philip Seymour Hoffman, welcome back to Fresh Air.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: The story in "Doubt" is all about doubt versus certainty about whether you are a predator or a protective mentor, and the audience is left with doubts about this, too.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Mm-hm.

GROSS: Do you have to know when you're performing in this film if you abused the boy or not?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah, because if I didn't, I'd be playing the janitor or something, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But that's what I was wondering, right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know what I mean? It's...

GROSS: Yeah, I do know what you mean.

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, everybody - I get that question a lot, and it's odd because I have never gotten that question about any other part I've played, because everyone - every other part just assumes, because I'm playing the part, but for here, people somehow think I'm an audience member when actually, no, I played the guy. So, I have to have filled in his history, but that history is mine and I would never share it because it will just so destroy the experience of the movie-goer. But yes, I do have to fill that history in, in the way that I feel is - that I found more - most compelling.

GROSS: So, you are confident that you know what the character - what your character did and didn't do. Do you know that because you decided, or because you spoke to the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, and he told you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, he had - I mean, again - again, I have to know because I'm playing the man or else he'd be psychotic.

GROSS: An amnesiac, yes, or psychotic.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, here I'd be playing a guy who has a memory problem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Which is so, you know - he then - and he's not psychotic and he doesn't have a memory problem. So, you know, John - I talked to John in private and he - you know, we had a conversation about it. And I took what was helpful from that and what I was thinking about and kind of filled it in. And it's a wonderful thing because it really could be anything. You know, it's this amazing thing how he set it up, where, you know, the stake are so high that you realize, if the stakes are so high, that it could be anything. It could be so many things, and that's what I found so interesting, because ultimately it becomes about his past - do you know what I mean? - because she says she's delved into his past, when we found out later that that's not true, but he's led to believe that she did. So, he's really - he could be hiding something from his past that has nothing to do with anything that she's accusing him of. And I just found that fascinating and I could really, you know, use my imagination.

GROSS: Since you were privy to some of the playwright-dash-screenwriter's thoughts on what your character did and didn't do, was Meryl Streep privy to those thoughts, too, or was she kept in the dark as her character?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, of course not.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Of course not, no. No, Meryl - no one.

GROSS: No one but you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, again, the fact that she would even be privy to anything like that would be detrimental.

GROSS: So, did...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because then she would know something, and she shouldn't know anything.

GROSS: Did you talk about...

Mr. HOFFMAN: And she doesn't know anything.

GROSS: Did you talk about scenes with her before doing them?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, the scenes we were in.

GROSS: So, what kind of discussion do you have about a scene before doing it when you're working with her?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, you're with the director, too, so it's not like - it's - you're talking about it through a director and together, you know? And it's a lot of problem solving, you know. How do I get from here to there?

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Mr. HOFFMAN: How do I get from that beat to that beat, and what's the event, you know? What's our relationship? How long have we have been working here, you know? When did we first meet? When did this start, this antagonism? You know, what was it? Something else that happened? Where did I come from, you know? Those are all things that, you know, you would talk about and - but that that very issue of whether, you know, is what she's accusing him of is true or not, never, because I wouldn't, because I won't, because it doesn't happen.

GROSS: The late Anthony Mengela directed you in a couple of films.


GROSS: "Cold Mountain" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." And he was quoted in an article as saying this about you: Philip is an extraordinary actor, cursed sometimes by his own gnawing intelligence, his own discomfort with acting. Does that sound right to you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That you have, like - your intelligence is, like, sometimes a curse? And that you're uncomfortable sometimes with acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Ah, I miss him.

GROSS: I bet you do. Yeah.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I really do. Um, wow. You took me by surprise with that. Um, you know, I think I am as intelligent as the next guy. I think that the amount of concentration, sometimes the amount of personal exploration, it takes to do something well, can be not pleasant, you know, like hard work is. That doesn't mean that you don't want to do it or that you don't love it or that it's not ultimately satisfying. You know that old cliche; you know, nothing's worth it unless it's hard to do kind of thing. I wear that on my sleeve sometimes when I'm working.

And I think that because I trusted Anthony so much and I think - you know, and he got to know me, you know, like all really, really, fine directors do; they allow you to be who you are. The best and the worst of you is allowed to show up at work, and they are OK with that because they know that they need it and that the actor needs an environment of trust, and he was one of those people. So, he gets to know me probably better than some people that might have known me longer. So, he's probably referring to that, and he's a very intelligent man and obviously very insightful, and he's right. You know, I think I do wear that discomfort of sometimes the process, the creative process of something, and how sometimes it's not pleasant on my sleeve and I think that's what's he's talking about.

GROSS: What is that discomfort with?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, it's - you're - when you're shooting a film, the day can be 10, 12 hours long, usually. And you have to stay in a certain place through that time because you're at any moment, you'll be called to do what you do. And you've done a lot of work and prepared a lot of things, and the level of concentration it takes to kind of keep those plates in the air is - it can be - that's what's tiring about the job. Like any job, everything has - there's always something about that job that's exhausting, and that's what's exhausting about acting, is the level concentration over very long period of time.

And if there's something emotional about what you're doing that day, you're carrying that emotion on one level or another for a long period of time. If you think about life, first off, we don't want to - we're not too introspective. We don't walk around our lives just constantly trying to delve into the understanding of ourselves unless you're in therapy or something. And - but that's what actors do, you know? We really explore ourselves and other people and all that stuff.

And if you're carrying that around and the emotional life of that around over a period of time, it can be burdensome. But it's part of the work, and you're trying to create something artful out of it. And so, it's not therapy. So, you're not there to be in thera - you're there to take, you know, what you know and the experiences and behavior and emotional life of yourself and others and try to make something artful out of it. But the carrying of that around and the focusing of that can be, it can be tough.

GROSS: Have you been in therapy? And if so, was that useful or not for acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Ah, no. I've never been to therapy for acting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, no, I don't mean therapy for acting but therapy...

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, but that would be my answer, though; you know what I mean?


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Fair enough.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Take it. You know, I've never been in therapy for acting. That's for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's starring in the new movie "Doubt." We'll talk more after our break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Philip Seymour Hoffman, and he is starring in the new movie "Doubt." Let's talk about your performance that won the Oscar for best actor in 2006, and this is the film "Capote," in which you played Truman Capote. What's it like to play somebody who's real? And we have documentation of how he looked and sounded. When you agreed to take the role, were you at all worried that you would end up doing, like, an impersonation, as opposed to, you know, that kind of interior acting that you're used to doing?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, it's - well, I wasn't worried about that because I'm not good at impersonations, so I knew that I wouldn't be able - I knew that that wouldn't be my forte, you know? I think there's other people that probably do a much better, and that do, a much better impersonation of Truman Capote than I ever will. I just knew, because his behavior is so extreme, that I had to have some semblance of what it was, some sense of behavior and voice that what it was, so people would follow me, you know? So, I got a sense of it to the best of my ability that still allowed me to connect to an inner life and of my understanding that his would be and just kind of jumped, you know, and went for it.

But no, I was never scared of that, because I knew I never really would do that as well as I would hopefully do the acting of the part, you know? I had to let go of that after a certain point. But I knew I had to do something. And so, what you see is as specific as I could get and still be able to act the part as well as possible, because that stuff isn't really acting. That stuff is technical stuff that you kind of have to weave into the personal life and the intention and the drive and the passion of the character.

GROSS: Let's talk about the technical stuff for a moment, like developing the voice that you used for "Capote." How did you find the voice you were going to use?

Mr. HOFFMAN: By just watching stuff on him, you know what I mean? And just kind of - I have a very low voice, lower than most, and I - it's not very singsong-y. And I remember the first time I, you know, I'd heard him before when I was kid on "The Tonight Show" and stuff, I guess, but it had been awhile, you know? And so, when Bennett showed me this documentary about...

GROSS: This is the director?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, Bennett Miller. I remember he put it on and I was just like, ah, Christ! Oh, no. And I literally thought, like, oh, this is a disaster. What did I do? You know, I was like, what did I do? Because I'd already said yes. And I was kind of a - my head went - my head bowed, you know?

GROSS: Because what? You...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because it was so extreme. I remember when I saw him and saw his behavior and saw him talk and I was just like, I'm never going to be able to get a sense of that, to get people to follow me, you know? And then I just started, I said, all right, you know, and I just got all the tapes I could, the audio tapes, video tapes, and I just started training in a way, you know, to get as close as I could a sense of his behavior, you know? And that - and so because all you have to do is really get, get close enough, you know? You get a sense of something and the people kind of - you know, people go, they see it and they'll immediately, if you're getting a sense of something and there's a true - and there's true acting going on, then they'll give over - you know what I mean? - because they want to give over because what they're watching is true. The impersonation is really not interesting anymore. It's really about your belief in the circumstances of this character and what they're going through and that you buy that story in that character's journey as long as what you're doing is honest. And so my - you know, that was just me doing the best I could to facilitate that transfer of belief, you know, that leap of faith, for everybody in the audience.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from the film? I mean, the film "Capote" dramatizes the period of Truman Capote's life when he's writing "In Cold Blood," his nonfiction book about two killers who massacred a family in cold blood. And so, in this scene you're in prison visiting with one of the alleged killers, Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins Jr. And you've kind of befriended him, and you know, your friendship is paying off because the more of a friendship there is, the more comfortable he feels with you, the more he tells you about himself. And you've also just done him a favor; you found a lawyer, a different lawyer for him, and he's very grateful for that. And this scene happens just after you've hit on the title "In Cold Blood" for your book. So, here you are in the prison cell with Perry Smith right after you found him a lawyer and he's grateful.

(Soundbite of movie "Capote")

Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS JR.: (As Perry Smith) Thank you.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Hey, it's as much for me as for anyone, and I couldn't bear the thought of losing you so soon.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) We're going to be able to use your book for our case. You were right. We never got to raise an insanity plea. You wrote how terrible the lawyers was.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I haven't written a word yet.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) What've you been doing?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Research, talking to you.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) All right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I had hoped...

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) What are you calling it?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) The book? I have no idea. Perry, if I'm going to write about you, if I'm going to determine how to write about you, we need to talk about why you're here, hmm, you know, the murders that night at the Cutter house.

(Soundbite of silence)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Do you worry what I'll think? Is that it?

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) Dick says you know Elizabeth Taylor.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I know a lot of people. Ah, Perry, I have invitations to be in Morocco and Greece. And I prefer to be here with you.

GROSS: That's Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in the film "Capote." That's the role he won an Oscar for. You played Capote with this really interesting mix of, like, empathy and manipulation, and it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Did you read a lot about Capote before figuring out how to portray him and what you thought his reservations were?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, I did and it was helpful because what you said, I think, is very accurate. I don't think you could tell when his empathy - where his empathy ended and where his manipulation began. I think that became worse and worse and became more and more detrimental and affected a lot of people, you know? There's a lot of people that I've run into since I made the movie who knew him, who either adored him or hated him. There weren't many middle-ground - not a lot of middle ground. And - and that scene is a perfect example. In that scene he is lying - he is lying. He's lying, he's just lying.

It's the beginning of the really harsh betrayal, you know - and not that, you know, Perry Smith needs, you know, empathy - but the fact that Truman Capote was getting a - was empathetic and was getting close to this person, and was ultimately using this person for his own gain, he - that lying started to become something that was soul-eating, you know? It was - it was - that's the movie, you know? And in that scene, you see him being incredibly empathetic, but his empathy is littered with lies right to his face. So, it's a very, very troubling story, very troubling character, you know, and yeah, all that stuff I wanted to know about, you know, and all the ways he kind of did it, and I did read and talk to people and stuff like that.

GROSS: Philip Seymour Hoffman will be back in the second half of the show. He stars with Meryl Streep in the new movie "Doubt." You can also see him in the current film "Synecdoche, New York." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He stars with Meryl Streep in the new movie "Doubt." He won an Oscar in 2006 for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the film "Capote." Hoffman grew up in Rochester, New York. Now, before you started acting, you were a wrestler in high school. I mean, that was, I think, your main sport?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I was a wrestler - baseball was my thing. I was a baseball player until I was probably, like, a sophomore. And I was a wrestler seventh, eighth and ninth grade. And it was in ninth grade, when I was on the junior varsity wrestling team, is when I injured myself. And that is when I started going out for plays, but I was, yeah, I was a big athlete up 'til, like, freshman, sophomore year of high school. I loved sports. I still love sports. Sports is still a huge passion of mine. It was baseball, football, wrestled - football only two years, though. I didn't like getting hit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was your injury when you were a wrestler?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It was a neck injury. I was in a neck brace for awhile. I almost had to have surgery on it. It was a serious thing that, you know, basically the doctors had said, you know, you really - you can't get hurt like that again, you know? And it was kind of - he was saying there is enough of a weakness that's in your neck now because of that that, you know - so, I didn't wrestle anymore. I probably would have kept doing it if I hadn't got injured. Anyway, I went out for a play, and the rest kind of just unfolded, you know? Very funny...

GROSS: So, do you still have to be careful about your neck because of the previous injury?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. I am aware of it sometimes. I can feel it sometimes, you know? You know, I don't wrestle anymore, so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So, did the neck injury that made you give up wrestling lead to acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, that I just - you know, because I went to the theater when I was young with my mother. It always comes back to the mother, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: My mother took me to the theater when I was - probably seriously started taking me when I was probably 12. And she took me to the, you know, the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, which is the Equity house there. It was in a small house at that time. The first play I saw was "All My Sons." And so, she took me to serious stuff, new plays, you know, the American classics and stuff like that. So - and I just adored it. I thought it was a miracle. I thought it was magic, you know? I just couldn't get enough of it. But I was still - you know, there was not anything that I wanted to do. I just thought, I am just going to go to the theater all my life and, you know, maybe watch baseball, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: And so, when I injured my neck, my mom was like, go out for a play, you know? And like I said, she was open to that thing, that kind of exploration of all those things that she - she has huge passions. She has a huge passion for the - athletics. Huge sports fan. And she is a huge theater fan. So, she was all for it, you know, both, and so..

GROSS: So, you didn't see a big dichotomy between sports and theater?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No. No, I think they're the same. You know, I think they're the same. I don't understand - I mean, I do. It's not a big deal, but some of the - I don't understand people who are actors who don't love sports. I think it's the same thing, the same - what it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing that it takes to be great actor, I think, that kind of concentration, that kind of privacy in public and that kind of unself-conscious kind of experience are very similar and that kind of pressure of the people watching, and finding privacy in front of - and all that stuff. So, you know, I find it very similar.

GROSS: Nevertheless, in high school, the theater crowd and the jock crowd tend to be fairly different groups of people?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Not really.


Mr. HOFFMAN: It's interesting. It's a mix, you know? There is a lot of - most of - a lot of my friends who are in the theater are huge sports fans. But there's a few that aren't, and I am always curious why not, because the same pleasure I get out of watching a great game is somewhat the same pleasure I get out of watching a great performance. And not - it's not in the exact same way, but it definitely come from the same place.

GROSS: Now, I read - and I don't want to dwell on this - but I read that when you were 22 - I think that was right after you got out of the - NYU's Tisch School for the Arts - that you had been drinking and using pills and went into rehab. So, I assume that you don't drink anymore; is that - because a lot of people who do that, like, feel like they can't drink. So, my question is, if it's true that you can't drink, what do you do when, like, you see people, like, really enjoying their wine and beer or their, you know, cognac or whatever? Like, do you resent it? Do you know what I am saying? Do you have to - does it make you feel resentful that there is this, like, great pleasure out there and, like, you can't have any?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think it's a great pleasure; do you know what I mean? Meaning, like, I understand, though, I think - I do think it's a great pleasure, but I think that anyone who's enjoying that pleasure too much, you know? I'm always like, OK, well, that's good. I'm glad you're enjoying that, you know? People who don't have a problem with alcohol don't have a problem with alcohol. You know, they have their couple of glasses of wine and they go on their way. You know what I mean? And that's just the way it is. I am just not one of those people. So, it's - you know, a couple of glasses of wine is, you know, not interesting to me at all. You know what I mean? That's what I meant by it's not a...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's not a great pleasure for me to have a couple of glasses of wine. That just - that's kind of annoying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Do you know what I mean? Like, why aren't you having the whole bottle?

GROSS: Right. I got it.

Mr. HOFFMAN: That's much more pleasurable. Do you know what I mean?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: So, it's - to somebody who doesn't understand that, they just don't understand it. You know, they're just - so, if I see somebody really enjoying their one glass of wine and walking away, then that's what they enjoy. So - but I can't be resentful of that because that's not enjoyable to me.

GROSS: Why have you decided in your career to use three names, Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's a union thing. I wish it was more romantic or special or obnoxious, but it's not. I was - when I started off, there was another Philip Hoffman, spelled exactly like me, who was successful in musical theater, always on Broadway. And at that time, the union asked you to change your name. And so I thought, well, I'll put my middle initial in, you know? And that wasn't enough. And so eventually, it was either change it - you couldn't change just the letter. I remember all that, going through all that, because what happened is that you end up getting each other's checks and stuff, like, things gets messed up.


Mr. HOFFMAN: And they don't want to even have that problem at all. You know what I mean? So, they didn't even risk it. So, they really want everyone's name to be completely different so there is no mess up. And I, in fact, remember back then getting his checks or him getting mine. I remember that actually happening. And so, that's why. So, I was like, well, you know, that was my grandfather's name. So, I'll put that in there and go from there.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Philip Seymour Hoffman stars in the new film "Doubt." He also stars in the current film "Synecdoche, New York." Coming up, "Frost/Nixon." We hear from journalist James Reston Jr., who prepped David Frost on his interviews with Nixon, wrote a book about it and was a consultant on the new film. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
James Reston Jr. on the 'Frost/Nixon' Interviews


In 1977, three years after Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, 45 million Americans watched on television as British celebrity journalist David Frost confronted Nixon over the Watergate scandal. It was the first time anyone had heard Nixon interviewed about the events that brought down his administration. Nixon agreed to speak to Frost for a total of 24 hours in return for a six-figure payment. The interviews were edited down to four 90-minute TV programs.

Our guest, historian and author James Reston Jr., was recruited to help prepare Frost for the Watergate portion of the interviews. Reston's account of his experiences, "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews," was published last year, when the Peter Morgan play "Frost/Nixon" renewed public interest in the interviews. Reston was a character in the play, and in the new film adaptation directed by Ron Howard, he's portrayed by actor Sam Rockwell. Reston, who is also a consultant to the film "Frost/Nixon," spoke to Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

Let's start with a scene from the film. Reston is confronting David Frost over the direction Reston thinks the Nixon interviews should head in. Frost is played by Michael Sheen.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. SAM ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) I'd like to give Richard Nixon the trial he never had.

Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) Of course, we'll be asking difficult questions.

Mr. ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) Difficult questions? The man lost 21,000 Americans and a million Indo-Chinese during his administration. He only escaped jail because of Ford's pardon.

Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) Yes, but equally going after him in some kneejerk way, you know, assuming he's a terrible guy, wouldn't that only create more sympathy for him than anything else?

Mr. ROCKWELL: (As James Reston Jr.) Right now, I submit it's impossible to feel anything close to sympathy for Richard Nixon. He devalued the presidency, and he left the country that elected him in trauma. The American people need a conviction, pure and simple.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, James Reston Jr., welcome back to Fresh Air. Why did Nixon decide to grant this interview not to a credible American news organization, but to a British interviewer known much more for fluff and celebrity?

Mr. JAMES RESTON JR. (Author, "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the Frost/Nixon Interviews"): I think there were several reasons. First and foremost, perhaps, in Nixon's mind was that he was going to make at least $600,000, and I think in the end he made over a million dollars from the project. He was very concerned about his memoirs, and I think that he felt that was - that this was going to be just an electronic version of his memoirs. And thirdly, and maybe most importantly, was that he thought that he could walk all over this British talk-show host and rehabilitate his reputation and perhaps change the historical attitude toward him.

DAVIES: So, when you finally met this guy who had this reputation of being this guy who tossed softball questions and for you, it was the chance to give Nixon the real trial that he never got, what was your impression of Frost?

Mr. RESTON: Well, I was really rather in conflict about that whole thing because on the one hand, you know, we had these deep concerns about whether this man was up to the job and whether he really appreciated the historical stakes that were involved here. But you put against that the fact that, indeed, he's the one that got the deal. He had the exclusive rights. This was going to be the one shot that history would ever get to bring Nixon to account. And so, that was the conflict. Was he up to it? Well, not necessarily. Was he the one that was going to do it no matter what? Yes. There you had it. So, I put those things into the balance and decided I'd better get into this with gusto.

DAVIES: It was important for Frost to understand all this material about Watergate, but it would have been particularly helpful if he'd gotten some new stuff. You were able to find some Nixon conversations which have really had not made it into public view. How did you do that?

Mr. RESTON: Yeah. Well, these were conversations with Charles Colson, who was a kind of henchman for Rich Nixon in the White House, and I had never seen any Nixon-Colson conversations in the public record. But I had gone to see Colson, and he had indicated to me that there were such things, and I thought that might be quite interesting if I could find them. So, I was on the hunt, and indeed, by going back to the United States courthouse and looking at the trial transcript of the H. R. Haldeman trial, in the exhibit portion, out dropped something like five conversations between Nixon and Colson. And they were quite amazing. They walked chronology backwards a few days in terms of Nixon's knowledge of the break-in and his involvement in putting the cover-up into place and the very first working day at the White House after the break-in on June 17th, 1972.

Nixon had left office when a tape recording was revealed from June 23rd, 1972, that became famously known as the smoking-gun tape. But here dropped a conversation out with Colson which showed him very much starting right at the get-go, you know, putting a cover up into place. And we hoped that this would flummox Nixon, in his shock and surprise that we had new material, and that this would allow Frost to take charge of the interview.

DAVIES: In the interview, when he confronted Nixon with this unexpected material that you had uncovered - conversations with his hatchet man Charles Colson which the public had never yet heard before - as you watched that, what was its effect on Nixon?

Mr. RESTON: Well, it was quite extraordinary because, you know, yes, this was the trial that he never had, but it was a trial before 57 million people. And there is something relentless about that television camera, of course. This was very tight close-ups. And when the trap was sprung, it was fascinating television because Nixon - you could almost see the wheels working in his head, asking himself, my God, where does this come from? How do I respond to what's in it? Here he had said to Colson, you know, we just stonewall it. We're just going to leave it with the burglars and so forth. It was tremendously damaging material. And so, it knocked him off his game. It knocked him off his steady defenses. And indeed, the material itself undermined the basic case that he had presented to the public up until that moment.

DAVIES: You know, I watched the actual interview as it aired in preparation for our interview. And I have to say, I mean, David Frost did a masterful job of this, because you had a situation where, as you say, the material was incredibly complex, a lot of dates, and Nixon knew it all and was prepared to offer point-by-point defenses. And Frost was so good. His mastery of the material was such, thanks to him having read the preparation you'd given him, that he really came back so often and so well. And I thought we would listen to just a little bit of this, and this is a moment where he cites for Nixon excerpts of Nixon's own words from that White House tape, discussing hush money for a number of Watergate conspirators, including Howard Hunt.

(Soundbite of 1977 Frost/Nixon interview)

Mr. DAVID FROST (British Journalist): Is there any of doubt when one reads - reading the whole conversation - one, you could get a million dollars and you could get it in cash; I know where it could be gotten. Two, your major guy to keep under control is Hunt; don't you have - three, don't you have to handle Hunt's financial situation? Four, let me put it frankly; I wonder if that doesn't have to be continued. Five, get the million bucks; it would seem to me that would be worthwhile. Six, don't you agree that you'd better get the Hunt thing? Seven, that's worth it, and that's buying time, also. Eight, we should buy the time on that, as I pointed out to John. Nine, Hunt has at least got to know this before he is sentenced. Ten, first, you've got the Hunt problem; that ought to be handled. Eleven, the money can be provided. Mitchell could provide the way to deliver it; that could be done.

See what I mean? Twelve, but let's come back to the money. They were off on something else, desperate to get away from the money, bored to death with the continued reference with the money, a million dollars and so forth and so on. Let me say that I think you could get that in cash. Thirteen, that's why your immediate thing, you've got no choice with Hunt, but 120 or whatever it is, right? Fourteen, would you agree that this is a buy-time thing? You better damn well get that done, but fast. Fifteen, now who is going to talk to him? Colson? Sixteen, we have no choice and so on. Now, reading, as you've requested, the thing in the whole context, that is...

Former President RICHARD NIXON: All right, fine. Let me just stop you right there. Right there. You're doing something here which I am not doing, and I will not do throughout these broadcasts. You have every right to. You are reading there out of context, out of order, because I have read this and I know it really better than you do.

Mr. FROST: I'm sure you do.

Pres. NIXON: And I should know it better because I was there. It's no reflection on you. You know it better than anybody else I know, incidentally, and you're doing it very well.

DAVIES: And that's from the Frost/Nixon interviews in 1977, which, of course, our guest James Reston Jr. wrote about. He helped prepare Frost for the interviews. And you know, what's fascinating about that cut, you can see Frost being the prosecutor and you hear Nixon getting rattled. You know, you write on this book that you thought no American journalist could've done what David Frost did in that interview. Why?

Mr. RESTON: Yes. Well, I've been sounding rather negative towards David Frost up until this point, but he, in some ways, he was the best person in the world to do this, if he was going to buckle down and master the material, because he had this past as an entertainer and as a comic, and he was very much in command of the language. He knew how to use irony and humor to undercut an argument of his guests. So, it was the entertainer side of it were really quite powerful weapons that he brought to this thing.

DAVIES: We're speaking with James Reston Jr. He helped David Frost prepare for his interviews with Richard Nixon which were aired in 1977. They're depicted in the new film "Frost/Nixon." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with James Reston Jr. He helped David Frost prepare for his historic interview with Richard Nixon which aired in 1977 and is the subject of the new film "Frost/Nixon." There was an unexpected break in the taping, which people didn't realized at the time, and that's a story you tell in the book. What happened?

Mr. RESTON: Well, very shortly after that, that point, Nixon started, it seemed, to crack. And Jack Brennan, who was Nixon's chief of staff, came on to the set, and he held up a note to David Frost. And Frost acceded to this, stopped the taping, and there was a furious rush. I came flying out of our room. Brennan came by and grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me into a room. David came off the set, and he was beckoned into this room, and there was a 10-minute break in which Brennan said...

DAVIES: This was Nixon's guy, Brennan? Right.

Mr. RESTON: Yeah, he said to both of us, now you've brought him to this extraordinary moment in his life. You've got to back off in this prosecutorial thing and let him talk. He really wants to be forthcoming. And as this, sort of, the goad in the piece, I said, well, what is - you know, if we back off, what's he going to say? Is he going to acknowledge criminality? Will he acknowledge an impeachable offense? No, said Brennan, he wouldn't do that. Well, I said, why should we back off, then? So, it was a conversation which really had no resolution to it. We had no assurance that anything different was going to happen. So, back they went onto the set. And Frost simply took a bet that he would get something very significant if he backed off, and indeed, changed, basically - and this is where he was at his brilliant best - changed from the prosecutor to a kind of father and confessor to pull out of Nixon first an acknowledgment of the crime and then, ultimately, an apology for his behavior.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it's interesting because it seems to me, when I listen to it, that Nixon didn't acknowledge very much. I mean, he continued to insist that he had never committed an impeachable offense, had never engaged in obstruction of justice, and the closest he came was where he said that, well, he was advising his friends - his aides Ehrlichman and Haldeman - when they were in trouble. He was sort of acting as a lawyer, and he says, I came to the edge, and under the circumstances, I would have to say a reasonable person could call that a cover-up. But he immediately says, I didn't think of it as a cover-up, I didn't intend a cover-up, and he continues with sort of these self-pitying stories about his daughter pleading with him and more rationalizations. I think it was a powerful interview, but I'm not so sure he had admitted so much. Am I wrong?

Mr. RESTON: Yes. Well, this is, I suppose, the great subject for discussion of historians and the general audience about that acknowledgment and that apology. I found it absolutely satisfying in every respect. I think you slightly misstated what happened there, that, indeed, he does say, I didn't commit a crime; I didn't commit an impeachable offense. But he goes on to say, these are technicalities. You know, I did tremendously botch the thing. And then he goes on to talk about how he let down his friends, and he let down the country, and he let down the young people of America who wouldn't get into government because they now think it's so corrupt.

That is left not as a legal question, but as a psychological question. As the viewer, do you find that to be an acknowledgment of his criminality, and do you find the apology sincere, or is it fake? I, as one who felt he had to be shown to be guilty of the crimes of Watergate, I felt that that happened. That is my opinion and that was the opinion of 72 percent of the American people when polls were taken afterwards. Did he say, yes, I committed the crime, and yes, I committed an impeachable offense? No, he didn't. But I think that's a really sort of minor point.

DAVIES: For a lot of Americans, especially younger Americans, I mean, the "Frost/Nixon" film will really be the version of history that they take of these events in 1977. And Nixon is portrayed in the film by Frank Langella, who also did him in the play, and it's an incredibly nuanced portrayal. And I'm wondering, do you think it is a sympathetic view of Nixon? And are you concerned that people will view Nixon in a more sympathetic light if this is the Nixon they see?

Mr. RESTON: Yes. Well, I am very concerned about that, and I've had many discussions with a number of people in the production on that particular point. The achievement of the film is that it humanizes Nixon, and that's a very good thing. When you move beyond humanization into sympathy, you get into much more dangerous territory. There is no reason to feel sympathy about Richard Nixon in relation to the Watergate scandal. And the performance of Frank Langella is extraordinary in the sense that, yes, he is a human being, but he also has this sense of menace and scariness about him that is the mark of a great actor and a great performance. But I would be very distressed if coming out of this film that people felt sympathetic. You can say the villain is complicated, and he is fascinating and enigmatic and riveting. But he's still a villain, and he did do these things, and we need to remember precisely what those crimes were.

DAVIES: Well, we're out of time. James Reston Jr., I want to thank you so much for spending some time with us.

Mr. RESTON: Delighted.

GROSS: James Reston Jr., speaking with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies. Reston is the author of the book, "The Conviction of Richard Nixon: The Untold Story of the "Frost/Nixon Interviews." He was a consultant on the new film "Frost/Nixon" and is portrayed in it by Sam Rockwell. Dave Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


'Monuments to the Unthinkable' explores how nations can memorialize their atrocities

In How the Word Is Passed, author Clint Smith explored U.S. sites that deal with the legacy of slavery. Now, in The Atlantic, he writes about German memorials to the Holocaust.


Journalist Maria Ressa explains 'How to Stand Up to a Dictator'

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist faced criminal charges in the Philippines after her news site's reporting angered government officials. How to Stand Up to a Dictator is her new memoir.


Maureen Corrigan's favorite books of the year: 10 disparate reads for a hectic 2022

Some years, my best books list falls into a pattern: like a year that's dominated by dystopian fiction or stand-out memoirs. But, as perhaps befits this hectic year, the best books I read in 2022 sprawl all over the place in subject and form. Here are 10 superb titles from 2022:

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue